Profile: Laura Putnam of Motion Infusion

Laura Putnam

    CEO & Founder, and author of “Workplace Wellness that Works”
    Motion Infusion, Inc.
    Stanford University, Brown University
Laura Putnam, MA, author of Workplace Wellness That Works (WILEY, 2015), is CEO and founder of Motion Infusion whose work has been covered by MSNBC, The New York Times, US News & World Report, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, and NPR. She is a former urban public high school teacher, international community organizer, dancer, gymnast and now a movement-builder in the world of health and wellness.
With a mission to get organizations “in motion,” Laura has worked with a range of organizations from Fortune 500s to government agencies to academic institutes and nonprofits. She is the recipient of the American Heart Association’s “2020 Impact” award as well as the National Wellness Institute’s “Circle of Leadership” award. A graduate of Brown University and Stanford University, Laura lives in San Francisco with her fiancé.

“When we shift responsibility from the individual to the culture we can really start improving well-being on a much larger scale.”


Wellness can mean a lot of different things to many different people. How do you define wellness?

Wellness, at its most fundamental level, is about investing in self-care practices that enable us to become our better selves. Very simply, it’s about being human – even at work. The research overwhelmingly suggests that when we’re able to be human and bring our full selves to work, rather than “checking our emotions and self-care needs at the door,” we’re more creative, better equipped to work with others, and more productive.
Wellness, in its earlier rendition, primarily focused on the physical aspects of health, with an emphasis on reducing risk factors, such as excess weight, high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol levels. Today, we recognize that health is, in fact, much more than the sum of these physical risk factors. Rather, it’s more about overall well-being.

With the new definition of wellness shifting towards well-being, how should we be thinking about it now?

We should be thinking about all of the elements that play into our health: physical, emotional, social, financial, community, career, environmental, creative, spiritual, the list goes on – even how frequent (and satisfying) our sex life is! A growing body of research shows that all of these components factor into our overall health and well-being. Make no mistake: investing in the physical aspects of our health – things like healthy eating and physical activity – is foundational to overall well-being. However, as uncovered by a Gallup study that surveyed individuals in over 150 countries around the world, we need to be paying attention to the multiple aspects of well-being – and the interplay between these various elements – in order to fully thrive in life.
Breaking down some of these multiple elements, physical well-being ensures that we have the energy needed to accomplish our daily tasks. Social well-being, or connecting with family, significant other, coworkers and friends, is vital for our health and impacts every aspect of our lives. Financial well-being, or effective management of our resources, is not necessarily about making tons of money, it’s about feeling secure and spending money in a way that enriches us (rather than depleting us). Community well-being, we might say, is where we live and how much we give back. Do we live in a community that reflects our values? Do we feel connected with our neighbors, and are we actively involved in the betterment of our community? Finally, career well-being may be the most important of all. According to Gallup research, those who have a high level of career well-being are 50 percent more likely to be thriving overall, compared with those who have a low level of career well-being.

Well-being is a hard concept to measure. How can businesses show the impact?

This is the million-dollar question: How to demonstrate the value of well-being in the workplace? Traditionally, companies looked to wellness as the panacea for reduction of skyrocketing healthcare costs. Unfortunately, realizing savings in medical costs – especially in the short-term – is actually difficult, if not impossible. So, that leaves us with the question: Why invest in workplace wellness?
Evidence suggests that while well-being in the workplace may generate savings in healthcare costs over time, the real savings are incurred in the indirect costs. Poor health and well-being is a giant contributor toward so-called “presenteeism” – which is a fancy term for when employees show up at work but are checked out. Evidence suggests that lost productivity due to presenteeism likely accounts for over 60% of total costs related to poor health and well-being in the workplace.
Therefore when it comes to measuring impact, we should be more focused on the costs “beneath surface,” things like, presenteeism, absenteeism, lost productivity, morale, attraction and retention. So, my tip for business leaders who are looking to measure well-being is to change the way you think of it: Transition from ROI (return on investment) to ROV, or return on value. Think about how your program for well-being improves things like productivity and team engagement, in addition to attracting and retaining the best talent.

You just wrote a book. Tell me about it.

I wrote Workplace Wellness That Works to serve as a guide for anyone who is interested in finding better ways to promote well-being in the workplace. Let me clear, workplace wellness is a really good idea. The problem is that, unlike the movie “Field of Dreams,” if you build it – as in, a workplace wellness program – they (the employees) will not necessarily come. The problem that almost every company faces that has any kind of wellness program is engagement. While over 80 percent of organizations in the U.S. now offer some type of wellness program, an overwhelming number of eligible employees are opting out (up to 80 percent). The question is why, and what can we do differently?
That’s exactly what this book delves into, namely, how you take a really good idea, as in workplace wellness, and create something that actually works. A key theme that I emphasize throughout the book is the notion that you should think less about starting a program – and more about starting a movement.

Would you mind sharing those steps with us?

Of course!
If you’re the one who’s either been tasked with building a workplace wellness initiative (or if you’ve taken it upon yourself to do so), here are ten steps to keep in mind (that are explored in much greater depth in my book):

  1. Get started by shifting your mindset from expert to an agent of change. Experts deliver information; agents of change inspire movements.
  2. Imagine what’s possible through better well-being: enhanced quality of life, increased energy levels, better communities inside your company and out.
  3. Uncover the hidden factors. In other words, examine the culture of your organization. Is it one that’s likely to support or undermine any efforts to promote well-being at work? The culture has to be one that supports the people in order to get your movement of well-being off the ground. People need to feel cared for by the company in order to participate.
  4. Up to now we’ve been starting with a “what’s wrong” approach. A better strategy is to take a strengths-based approach to wellness.
  5. Don’t get stuck on one thing when trying to shift behaviors. Instead, reach across organizational siloes and take an interdisciplinary approach to change.
  6. Go stealth! Sometimes you don’t need to tell everyone exactly what you are doing. Embed wellness into non-wellness initiatives.
  7. Create meaning. After you’ve generated momentum, create the conditions in which people can motivate themselves. How can you build programs that are worthwhile and people want to be a part of?
  8. Make health easy and normal by designing “nudges” and “cues.” Nudges, or environmental prompts, make the healthy choice the easy choice. Cues, or cultural cues, can normalize well-being. At Google, for example, they serve food on smaller plates. It’s just a nudge but these small changes can make a big difference.
  9. Launch and iterate. Be willing to experiment and try things out.
  10. Go global and share best practices across borders.

There’s a really big tie in between these ideas and a strong culture. When we shift responsibility from the individual to the culture we can really start improving well-being on a much larger scale.